Taking the World By Storm

In a report from The Economist on Saturday discussing the massive buildup and modernization of China’s army, known as the People’s Liberation Army  (PLA), one particular passage caught my eye:

The navy appears to see itself as the guardian of China’s ever-expanding economic interests. These range from supporting the country’s sovereignty claims (for example, its insistence on seeing most of the South China Sea as an exclusive economic zone) to protecting the huge weight of Chinese shipping, preserving the country’s access to energy and raw materials supplies, and safeguarding the soaring numbers of Chinese citizens who work abroad (about 5m today, but expected to rise to 100m by 2020).

Just in case you skimmed over that last part, The Economist projects that the number of Chinese citizens working overseas will expand to 100 million by the year 2020. This not only speaks volumes about the sheer size of the Chinese population and the potential for future economic growth, but also portends a radical change in the way that Chinese expatriates interact with and affect the wider world. Food for thought: Just imagine how this massive demographic outpouring will affect the world.

And this great leap in Asian interaction with the wider world will not stop with China. India’s population will be larger than China’s by the year 2025 and will be younger and growing to boot. Indonesia, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines (among others) all promise economic and population growth, which means that educated workers will leave their countries in unprecedented numbers. Additionally, as we have seen with China, I expect that these Asian expat activities will not be limited to sending students and professionals to the developing world, but also working on development projects in other burgeoning countries. The tremendous affect that such a sheer number of people could have on the wider world is truly astounding.

At present, developed countries certainly produce the bulk of the world’s “wealthy and mobile” expats – teachers, students, and professionals who have no intention or possibility of ever attaining local citizenship. Western expats are a common sight in Asia, and entire neighborhoods of Beijing and Shanghai are populated by foreigners and catered to their tastes. These individuals not only act as cultural representatives of foreign countries, but also undoubtedly affect the culture of the host country, as well as the way the West is seen. With the economic development of Asia (and China in particular due to its recent spectacular successes), what we are going to witness by the year 2020 is a new era of expats from Asia taking the world by storm – in such sheer numbers that their influence will be inescapable, perhaps even dwarfing the influence of Western expats today.

At Columbia, we already live in a community directly shaped by nationals from all over the globe and hearing Chinese or Korean on campus is a fact of daily life. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. As Asia continues to boom, there will be more Asian expatriates than we can easily conceptualize today. This means big changes for the whole world. Culturally, intellectually, demographically, politically, and militarily – a wave of hundreds of millions would be a game changer across the board.